…As a CEO and a mom, it would be to come out of this health crisis having a greater understanding and level of compassion for the balancing required of working parents. Lines have been blurred more than ever. I’m an entrepreneur, wife, teacher, mom, chef, entrepreneur, peacekeeper, housekeeper and toilet paper keeper rolled into one, and sometimes, it’s all in the same hour of the day! I’m going from call to video meeting to lunch and worksheets and everyone I work with, employees and clients alike, couldn’t be more understanding. We laugh when my 4-year-old makes a cameo on Zoom and it brings us all closer. I hope that this level of respect and understanding extends beyond quarantine and we can maintain a perspective that lends itself to actual work-life balance.
As a part of my series about strong female leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Tiffany Rafii.
Tiffany is the Chief Executive Officer and Co-Founder of UpSpring PR, New York, NY, a full-service communications agency for B2B and B2C architecture, design and real estate communities — ranked as one of Observer Media’s top PR firms. Founded in 2009 with childhood friend Sarah Terzic, UpSpring PR is built upon a business-development driven method to PR — where programs are developed and executed for real estate companies, architecture and design firms, and product manufacturers. Maintaining an energetic and proactive approach, the 30 person team works to increase brand awareness and market share for clients by closely aligning efforts with internal business strategies. The agency currently serves over 60 clients headquartered in locales including New York City, Washington, D.C., Dallas, London, and Toronto and in industries that span the hospitality, commercial, and residential sectors. Tiffany spearheads business development while overseeing and executing key strategies for managing internal operations and client relations.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Aside from the economy being at an all-time low back in 2009, Sarah and I (as seniors at The George Washington University) saw an opportunity to capitalize on the shrinking PR budgets of small businesses. We completely dissected the PR landscape from our dorm room and discovered that there were so many PR firms dedicated to serving the lifestyle, beauty, fashion, and financial sectors, but not many that focused solely on design and architecture. We decided to take a chance on ourselves, turned away any client that didn’t fit the firm we wanted to be, hired employees that complemented our skill set and had significant industry expertise and grew from there. We’re excited to say we just celebrated our 11th anniversary as a company on April 1st.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
I still remember the very first trade show Sarah and I attended. We were just out of college and headed to Miami for Hospitality Design magazine’s HD Boutique trade show and conference. We were new to the design scene and certainly decades behind the other attendees when it came to experience, but whatever we lacked in knowledge we made up for in our energy and I think every client, even today, can see the enthusiasm that our entire team exudes. We paced every aisle of the show, were unafraid to strike up conversations to learn more about the people and companies in our industry, and on drive alone landed our largest client at that time. Today, Sarah and I still look back on that show as the catalyst for the incredible growth we had in the following years.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
For us, it was definitely the time we scrimped on our first media database. Sarah and I were just starting out as business owners and students at the time. We didn’t have much money but knew as publicists and owners of a PR firm that a media database was essential. All of the mainstream software was out of our budget, but we were able to find what we had thought to be an inexpensive solution. However, what we ended up with was merely an exported list of excel contacts with no rhyme, reason or cohesiveness. Our ‘cost effective’ solution turned out only to be a glorified excel document that ultimately couldn’t even be used. Sarah and I laugh now because back then we literally had to manually search within the spreadsheet to find a single contact in the most unorganized pool of contacts. Since then we have not only made the softwares we use a core priority in our operations, but when we don’t find exactly what we need we will even develop our own. This stumble led us to evaluate our needs and the value associated with investments in our company at an early stage. It’s safe to say it helped us avoid many other missteps along the way.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
From the very beginning, Sarah and I have remained focused on driving business development for our clients and we instill that same mindset into all of our employees. Our strategies always follow the growth objectives of the clients we work with and we spend a lot of time dissecting the various growth initiatives and sector opportunities each of our clients have. For that reason, a lot of clients come to us when they are ripe for expansion, whether that be entering a new market sector, launching a new product category, or looking to expand to North America from international locations. This also means that our conversations span well beyond PR and extend into sales and distribution, operations, RFP processes, product development, recruitment, and more. As a result, we become so integrated into our clients internal teams, we end up feeling more like family.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Over the years we’ve seen time and time again that knowledge is a catalyst for change. We are in a unique position as a company given that we represent clients spanning from developers to design firms and product manufacturers. Given that all three sectors rely on each other as partners in the industry, we are looking at new ways to assist in information sharing across each channel through new initiatives like surveys, virtual focus groups, and webinars.
Beyond our internal initiatives, we’re supporting our clients as they transform properties into COVID-19 testing sites, launch new software to enable architects and designers to specify products from their computers at home, and re-envision what the future workplaces and healthcare spaces will look like when the world hits play.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
Have a set of strong leadership habits in place to both empower and inspire. From there, work to continuously build on each team member’s strengths. Learn how they process information, pay attention to what motivates them, all while promoting a positive work environment that’s conducive to growth. We offer management training to our employees at Director-level and above to help staffers set personal and career goals. A performance improvement consultant sits with top-level employees weekly to set expectations, provide support, and give feedback as goals are set with purpose, targets, and measures. Writing workshops are available to all team members, as are opportunities for mentorship and accessibility to all leadership. Since we look for our future leaders from within the company, it is vital that everyone is aware of their path to success.
What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
The core of our management strategy has always been “know what you know and know what you don’t.” It’s not only about the best output, but about being human and leaving room for growth and help. Self-awareness creates a level of understanding that leads to strategic hires and helps to formulate teams that will be the most effective. Integrating smart, capable people with complementary skills into the management team structure and giving them the space to exercise that work will create the foundation for the remainder of the staff.
I also grew up in a house where trust carried the highest value. My mom would always tell me that it didn’t matter how bad the truth was because there was nothing more damaging than the erosion of trust created by a lie. This is a mentality I’ve carried with me and is something Sarah and I try to practice every day. We make it our priority to remain transparent with our staff, even if being transparent means admitting that we just have no clue. That way when we do have a clue, they’ll believe us.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
There are so many people who have helped us along the way! Our first clients who took a chance on us when we were young and just learning the ropes. The core group of employees who we now call “lifers” who have been instrumental in helping us shape and mold the company to where it stands today. Our group of advisors, whether or not they know that’s what they are, including friends and family members who have been a sounding board as we’ve worked through best practices. The culture of UpSpring was formed by all of their contributions throughout the years and we are eternally grateful.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
We are always seeking opportunities to provide guidance to young entrepreneurs entering the market. We wouldn’t be where we are, or get to where we’re headed without mentorship we continue to receive. We firmly believe in the importance of helping other entrepreneurs down a path we’ve already traveled.
We also provide pro bono services to not-for-profit companies in our industry, volunteer, and support philanthropies that resonate with members of the staff, and rally behind our clients’ philanthropic efforts wherever possible.
What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience” and why.
- Be Decisive — People need decisions from you. Be solution-oriented and expect the same out of your team when it comes to problem-solving.
- Lead by Example — It is much more effective to teach by doing. By embodying the qualities that you want to see in your team you provide a framework for them to follow.
- Recognize Your Strengths, Accept Your Weaknesses — Know what you know and what you don’t know — and surround yourself with people who know more.
- Find & Keep the Right Talent — You are only as strong as your team. Focus on creating a company culture that fosters growth and overall happiness.
- Don’t Take Yourself Too Seriously– Be willing to make mistakes, admit you’re wrong and have fun! You’ll get the most out of your work life if you enjoy the ride a bit.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
As a CEO and a mom, it would be to come out of this health crisis having a greater understanding and level of compassion for the balancing required of working parents. Lines have been blurred more than ever. I’m an entrepreneur, wife, teacher, mom, chef, entrepreneur, peacekeeper, housekeeper and toilet paper keeper rolled into one, and sometimes, it’s all in the same hour of the day! I’m going from call to video meeting to lunch and worksheets and everyone I work with, employees and clients alike, couldn’t be more understanding. We laugh when my 4-year-old makes a cameo on Zoom and it brings us all closer. I hope that this level of respect and understanding extends beyond quarantine and we can maintain a perspective that lends itself to actual work-life balance.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I’m an eternal optimist at heart, so what better quote to lead with than “Don’t Worry, Be Happy?” It’s important to stay positive and have confidence that you have the strength to lead through any situation. There are always going to be challenges, but worrying doesn’t help and very often, prevents you from seeing the solution and taking the action needed to keep driving things forward.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
Gwyneth Paltrow! She is a CEO, super mom, award-winning actress, author, thought-leader, culture-changer, industry disruptor, and role model. I appreciate how much authenticity she brings to her role as CEO. She allows herself to be vulnerable and seems to have unending curiosity which helps fuel creativity. I’d love to learn her secrets to making it all look so easy!